When the verdict fell on the Hrant Dink case, I had just come back from a press meeting with İshak Alaton, the well-known industrialist and veteran social-democratic activist, who had been speaking about anti-Semitism and Turkey’s relations with Israel, at the invitation of the Journalists and Writers’ Foundation.
As the disappointing outcome of the judicial case became clear, some of Alaton’s words, which seemed particularly relevant to the matter at hand, still resonated in my mind. Alaton had spoken movingly about his father, a businessman and enthusiastic supporter of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s young Turkish Republic, whose life and dreams were shattered when the Turkish state decided to impose a “wealth tax” on its non-Muslim citizens in 1942. Alaton Senior was among some 2,000 non-Muslim Turkish citizens who, unable to raise the astronomical sums they were asked to pay at short notice, were sent to Aşkale in Erzurum province, where they had to endure forced labor in unspeakable conditions. The family, forced to sell all its belongings, was left with just mattresses on the floor. When his father came back after a year, Alaton explained, his hair had turned white and he was a broken man who suffered from depression for the rest of his life.
As a young man, Alaton acknowledged, he had at times been harsh and impatient with his father, criticizing him for his inability to overcome his ordeal. It was only years later that his father explained the source of his despair. “If a man betrays his country, he is sentenced and he is punished,” he told his son. “But what happens if the state betrays me, the citizen? Nothing happens, nobody cares. They discard you like dirty linen.”
Nearly 70 years later, a similar despondency could be read on Rakel Dink’s tired face after the verdict was announced, and many in the country, I’m sure, shared her quiet despair. The system had, once more, failed the Armenian-Turkish writer Hrant Dink.
Much has changed in Turkey in the past decades, and particularly in recent years. By confronting elements in the army and the state institutions that were trying to undermine its power, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), for a while, fuelled the hope that the state, in its dragon, anti-democratic form, would finally be slain, after imposing much suffering on its own citizens, be they Jewish, Sunni, Christian, Alevi or Kurdish (and the list is not exhaustive). But while some of the dragon’s multiple limbs may have been chopped off -- those that directly threatened the ruling party and its supporters -- it is becoming increasingly evident that its head remains in place.
Dink’s assassination was a tragedy for Turkey, which lost one of its great humanists on the pavement of Şişli on Jan. 19, 2007. Until the court produced its flawed verdict a few days ago, those who care passionately about this country’s fate and want the pace of democratization to speed up, still hoped that the authorities would use the investigation into Dink’s murder to pursue the process of cleansing the state of its rogue elements and its narrow mentality. Instead, the judiciary, always ready to detect links with illegal organizations when students unfurl banners in support of free education or when intellectuals defend Kurdish rights, turned a blind eye to the trail of evidence.
Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin and other politicians have urged patience, pointing out that the outcome is not yet final. The verdict will be appealed, and the case may go all the way to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg. But how convincing, at this stage, is it for the ruling party to hide behind the courts? In the course of the investigation, the government failed to give clear signals that it would not let the matter rest until the whole truth was revealed. The investigation showed that senior officials knew a plot was afoot, but they did nothing to protect or warn Dink.
I don’t know how much outrage the wealth tax generated among the general Turkish population in 1942. But today in this country, supporters of an inclusive system that does not see its citizens as potential enemies are speaking out. As the founder of the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV), Alaton, now in his 80s, has long been, and remains, an active supporter of Turkey’s democratization process. Other defenders of a more inclusive and fair Turkey will gather in their thousands in Taksim to mark the fifth anniversary of Dink’s death on Thursday, and they will no doubt continue to fight for change and for all the culprits to be punished for his death. In that sense, the politicians are right: The case is not over. But it is not thanks to them.